Five Existential Philosophers and Their Contribution to Human Wisdom


existentialism “For philosophy to rule it is not necessary that philosophers be rulers, nor even for rulers to be philosophers. For philosophy to rule it is sufficient for it to exist; that is to say for the philosophers to be philosophers.” ~ Jose Ortega y Gasset

In a nutshell, existentialism denies that the universe has any intrinsic meaning or purpose. It requires people to take responsibility for their own actions and shape their own destinies despite this inherent meaninglessness.

As such, the concept of the self is a process as opposed to a fixed essence. Existentialism is related to several movements within philosophy including Phenomenology, Nihilism, and Absurdism.

This article will discuss five heavy-hitters of the philosophy, and their contribution to human wisdom.

Existential philosophers don’t seek answers, necessarily, but rather better ways of questioning and taking responsibility for their personal existence within an impersonal universe. For an existential philosopher it’s not so much about personal enlightenment as it is about seeking greater understanding of human flourishing. The epiphany of the existential philosopher isn’t, “I see the truth!” but, “What about perceiving things this way?”

1) Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855):
“It is not the path which is the difficulty. It is the difficulty which is the path.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard

As one of the foundational figures of existentialism (along with fellow philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and novelists Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka), Kierkegaard’s contribution to human wisdom was profound in the sense that he distinguished that human existence cannot be explained objectively.

He wrote abundantly about despair, using metaphor, irony and parables to explain the primordial angst of the human condition and its reflection in the mirror of the universe. As he wrote in Provocations, “Reflection is a snare in which one is caught (dependence/codependence), but, once the “leap” of enthusiasm has been taken (independence), the relation is a different one and it becomes a noose which drags one into eternity (Interdependence).” *Parenthesis added by the author*

His most famous work is Fear and Trembling, but Either/Or is considered to be his magnum opus, which is influenced by Aristotle’s question, “How should we live?” The “Either” essentially describes the “aesthetic” phase of existence: capricious and inconsistent longing.

According to Kierkegaard, eventually the limitations of the aesthetic approach leads to “despair” and a “leap of faith” must be made to resolve anxiety.

The “Or” is this leap, which essentially explains the “ethical” phase of existence: rational choice and commitment to a “path.” Both of these phases are eventually surpassed by a spiritual mode of existence. Ultimately, Kierkegaard’s challenge is for the reader to “discover a second face hidden behind the one you see… The pupil of possibility receives infinity.”

2) William James (1842-1910):
MC Escher
“Understand how great is the darkness in which we grope, and never forget the natural-science assumptions with which we started are provisional and revisable things.” ~ William James

William James is the foundational figure of pragmatism: the idea that thought is not merely a function which mirrors reality, but rather is an instrument for prediction, problem solving and action.

He is most famous for his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, which was originally delivered as two sets of lectures called the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1901.

This book is a penetrating gaze into the human heart and a philosophical inquiry into the psychology of first-hand spiritual experience.

James brought to the academic world not only the blueprints for his idea of pragmatism, but also a healthy and optimistic way of interpreting the existential experience of individuals. He also introduced an elegant typology that divides spiritual experience into two categories: Healthy-mindedness and morbid-mindedness.

The former mindset believes in a cosmos that is harmonious and healthy, where one need only bring themselves in harmony with it in order to sustain suffering and pain and to achieve happiness.

The latter mindset believes in a world where evil is real and genuine happiness requires its defeat. His now sustainable philosophy of pragmatism is the essence of healthy-mindedness.

3) Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
“One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

As one of the foundational figures of existentialism, Nietzsche wrote with brutal honesty and venomous wit about the human condition and its propensity for getting wrapped up in petty idols and short-sighted ideologies. Through poetic prose he brought us a way of thinking that still has people’s brains doing backflips.

The core of Nietzsche’s work was the idea of life-affirmation, but he also presented ideas such as the will to power, perspectivism, and the Apollonian/Dionysian dynamic. But perhaps his most profound contribution to human wisdom was the idea of the Übermensch, or overman, which was Nietzsche’s epistemological elite and cosmopolitan vision of human excellence. “Behold,” wrote Nietzsche in his magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “I teach you the overman.

Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?.. What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…”

Nietzsche was exceptionally gifted at mocking mankind’s failure to evolve. He called for a kind of aggressive evolution, one dependent not upon things being, but upon things becoming, upon things changing and transforming into what nature has in store for us. Similar to the way an acorn becomes a tree, or a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

jaroslaw-kukowski - PolandOur unique chemistry, our primal core, is perhaps similarly transcendent. Like the acorn and the caterpillar, we each have a natural, healthy, transformative process that only nature knows.

Perhaps nature knows that just as the ape had to overcome itself to become a man, man must overcome itself to become the overman. Indeed, the caterpillar is to the butterfly as mankind is to the overman.

4) Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
“Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism.” ~ Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre, more than any other philosopher, did not shy away from being linked to the idea of existentialism. In his book Existentialism as a Humanism, he wrote, “existence precedes essence.”

Which is basically the existential assertion that there is no predetermined essence to be found in being human, and that an individual’s essence is defined by the individual and how they create their own unique life. As Sartre states: “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and then defines himself afterwards.”

From this followed his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, which he wrote specifically to explain how existence precedes essence. The primary idea that came from this book was the radical idea that people are “condemned to be free.” This means that freedom is essential to being human; each human being must make his/her own choices.

It further means that freedom is inevitably a shared experience with other humans. We are all bound up with the freedom (or lack thereof) of humanity as a whole. As Sartre suggests, “Our responsibility is thus much greater than we might have supposed, because it concerns all of mankind.” Indeed, as long as anyone is not free, none of us are truly free.

5) Albert Camus (1913-1960)
“I rebel; therefore we exist.” ~ Albert Camus

Along with his existential musings, Albert Camus is one of the founding fathers of Absurdism: the existential philosophy which arises out of the fundamental disharmony between an individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe itself. In his philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, he asks, “How should the absurd man live?”

His final answer coming in the form of a spirit warrior who relinquishes eternity to affect and engage fully in human flourishing, a person who chooses interaction over mere observation, and who is aware of the fact that nothing can last and nothing is permanent.

Essentially, Camus argues that one should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning within an otherwise meaningless universe. Indeed, the solution to absurdity isn’t suicide, but rebellion.

It was such defiance that led to his book, The Rebel, an existential portrait of man in revolt. In this book, Camus weaves between the concept of the “absurd” and the concept of “lucidity” while explaining how rebellion stems from our being disenchanted with outdated and parochial applications of justice, and a seeming contradiction between the human mind’s unceasing quest for meaning and clarification within the apparently meaningless unclear nature of the universe.

Riding on the coattails of Sartre’s “people are condemned to be free,” he asserts, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

Image source:

Existentialism by NGHBRS
M.C. Escher’s Mirror Ball
Jaroslaw Kukowski Painting